As someone who has done SEO for over 15 years now, watching the SEO industry continue to change and evolve has been both fascinating and frustrating.
In the early days of SEO, any software tools or methods that helped automate SEO were frowned upon. SEO automation was automatically looked at as a waste of money, primarily because the one factor that can’t be replaced when it comes to an effective long-term SEO strategy is time. The time that is spent on a project by a person who knows enough about SEO to know what he or she is looking for in order to make improvements.
The time that is spent by an experienced SEO professional to focus on a wide variety of ranking factors, from a coding and web development standpoint, to a content writing and conversion standpoint, to an SEO standpoint which covers everything in between, such as crawlability, indexing, meta data, inbound link profile, and any of the additional 200+ ranking factors that Google takes into consideration when determining search engine rankings.
Moving into 2020, SEO has not died, nor has it evolved.
It has taken a step back, and in an era where Google’s search engine algorithm continues to evolve, SEO as a common perception has instead moved backward.
When SEO is being sold to a client, what used to be the most important factor as it relates to SEO – time – is no longer valued.
Here are 5 problems with SEO heading into 2020 that is damaging the perception of search engine optimization as a service.
1. Common misconception: you’re competing against Google
When most potential clients that I speak to about SEO voice concerns with their past SEO campaign(s) or providers, it’s almost always communicated as if they are under the assumption that the goal is to adhere to Google’s guidelines and terms of service, and that my primary goal should be work my “SEO magic” to make their website more “Google-friendly”.
The first thing I learned when I started doing SEO is that the future of SEO will be dependent on how much a webmaster or SEO consultant can actually perform to a website to make a difference to a site when compared to competing websites, and that there was going to eventually be a ceiling in terms of what can be done to improve search engine rankings.
In the early days, optimizing on-page meta data like page titles, meta descriptions, H1/H2, internal linking, alt image tags, and other on-page factors were extremely important, in addition to obtaining as many backlinks from other websites as possible.
The link building aspect of SEO during these times was equivalent to the Wild Wild West. You could have thousands of links from irrelevant websites, you could write articles and submit to article directors to obtain additional dofollow links, you could write bogus press releases and syndicate to PR sites for link authority. However, as Google and SEO evolved, they started imposing penalties to websites which were building links for the sole purpose of obtaining more links.
Does building links from irrelevant sites still work? Yes, its not something that I do personally, but the main point is that Google’s search engine algorithm continued to evolve over time in order to weed out spammers and those looking to “dupe” search engine rankings and flood the web with spam.
Link building has evolved, but on-page SEO is still extremely effective. More websites have launched in 2019 than were launched 15 years prior, dramatically more. The mobile revolution came along which saw mobile-friendly websites more “SEO-friendy”, but aside from the off-page link building aspect and advanced on-page metrics like schema.org markup, much of SEO in 2020 will be the same as 2004: how optimized is your website, and how user-friendly is it?
The ceiling I referenced earlier is one I thought about a lot back in those early days. As more websites continue to launch over the years, how will SEO evolve? Will having keywords in page titles and meta descriptions still be as effective in 2020 as when there were less sites 15 years ago?
Will maintaining a certain percentage of keyword density in the website’s content still matter? Not necessarily.
But what’s lost in all of this is that your website is not competing against Google, it’s competing against the other websites trying to obtain top rankings for the keywords, services, and topics that you’re trying to rank for.
If your SEO company is building harmful links to your site, your website will suffer, your rankings will drop, and your competitors will gain.
If your SEO company is writing content for search engines, stuffing keywords into content that is barely readable because they paid a freelance copywriter that they found on Fiverr $20 per blog post to meet a monthly content quota, your rankings will drop, and your competitors will gain.
Working with an SEO company who employs people or works with experienced SEO consultants who know how to do the right things, know what to actually improve and work on, spend the time focusing on factors that will make a positive difference, and know how to keep you ahead of your competitors is what you’re paying them for. You’re not paying them to work “SEO magic”, you’re not paying them to compete with Google, you’re not paying them to write content or Tweet every month. You’re paying them because they know how to make a website more user-friendly in terms of the information and how it is made available, and more SEO-friendly in terms of making that information more crawlable and optimized than your competitors. This needs to be taken into account when considering SEO pricing.
Are you working with experienced SEO strategists and consultants who possess the variety of skills to be able to improve your website load times, optimize your content in an effective manner, know their way around extremely important data tools such as Google Analytics and Google Search Console, have their finger on the pulse in terms of what website content should be indexed and which content might be causing duplicate content issues, and any of the other long list of ranking factors with the end goal being to make your website as user and search-engine friendly as possible? Or are you paying a monthly SEO retainer because you fell for attractive PowerPoint presentations and fancy sales pitches, thinking that the company you signed up for can “work their SEO magic?”
Which brings me to the next problem with SEO heading into 2020:
2. SEO: something everyone’s offering
In 2004, I could tell someone that I just met that I do SEO for a living and they would look at me like I was speaking another language.
15 years later, and the SEO landscape has dramatically changed.
As an SEO agency, I’m no longer competing with other SEO’s, many of whom the majority of potential clients don’t trust because of their bad past experiences with SEO consultants.
I’m now competing with marketing agencies who see SEO as an opportunity to offer an additional service. I’m competing with web development and advertising agencies who see SEO as a way to possibly land more clients and offer additional revenue.
But what happens when all of these new companies in the SEO game actually land SEO projects? Who is doing the work? Is it being performed by an in-house SEO team with years of experience? Unless you’re paying them $5k, $10k, $20k/month, probably not. You get out what you put in, this is why I mentioned that important “time” aspect at the beginning of this post.
The experienced SEO consultants who possess a wide variety of skills, and time they spend on a project, is what usually makes a difference. So if you’re paying your ad agency $2000/month to manage your SEO, they are going to take their percentage, and outsource the rest either overseas or to a local individual consultant for a monthly retainer, unless they have an in-house person who is managing it all and trying to keep everything together. The freelancers or overseas providers then have to communicate with the in-house project manager at your ad agency who is communicating the monthly strategy, with he or she almost certainly being a novice when it comes to SEO despite what your ad or marketing agency promised you. So how does that working relationship work? Company charges monthly retainer, outsources work to most cost-effective provider, project manager believes whatever the outsourced consultant or provider tells them is important or what they are working on, and that is communicated to the client.
So what is lost here?
This is exactly what is killing SEO as a service, and the overall SEO industry. It’s being undersold (in terms of the price SEO is being sold at) by more unqualified providers, and managed by agencies who are simply not knowledgeable about SEO. It’s being outsourced and managed by people, either domestic or overseas, who are being paid to manage as many client projects at once as possible.
Everyone is adding as many projects as they can handle, a ton of work ends up falling through the cracks, but as long as those advertising and marketing agencies can simply show their clients that their sites are being “SEO’ed”, they keep collecting their monthly retainers, take a percentage for managing their clients, and two things happen as a result:
- The ad and marketing agencies, and their clients, are left with a negative impression of SEO once things go south because they feel like they’re been screwed over, as a result of not being able to effectively communicate a clear strategy, or not being able to manage client expectations. Throughout most of this time, they don’t even know what they’re selling or offering, meanwhile…
- The experienced SEO’s who know how to improve overall search engine visibility, understand how things work, can develop a long-term effective strategy, can communicate to the client not to panic the second they see a drop-off in organic search traffic or search engine rankings…they’re reduced to basically teaching in-house project managers what SEO is or how it works, they’re forced to present data and presentations simply to keep clients happy, and they’re undervalued in the grand scheme of things because ad and marketing agencies have turned SEO from a strategic investment to keep you ahead of your competitors to an over-simplified line item. SEO: something everyone’s offering.
3. Communicating time to a client
Communicating to a client everything that has been worked on and managed to improve their website’s overall search engine visibility is just about impossible. I could spend 5 hours improving on-page meta data, analyzing competitors, reviewing crawl stats and implementing improvements, analyzing important data, utilizing in-house tools… if I communicate all of that to a client, they may just want to hear that things are being worked on, but they will almost certainly not have an idea of what you’re talking about, or why it’s so important.
In 2020, none of this will matter, because of the issue I raised in #2.
Breaking SEO tasks down by hourly line items, agencies reporting to clients what has been completed each month, all of this is severely damaging SEO. It’s discounting the most important aspect, which is time spent, it’s more valuable than you believe but communicating to a client every month what has been worked on as an hourly breakdown is not good for managing expectations, developing a strategy, or for the overall SEO industry. It’s good for agencies who want to show their clients things are being worked on as they attempt to justify how effective a department is performing on an hourly basis, but if you have a solid relationship with your client as an SEO consultant who has helped them build a long-term strategy, they understand that it is practically impossible for me to break down everything I do, analyze, and work on as individual line items every month. I’m doing everything I can to keep you ahead of your competitors, improve your rankings, organic search traffic, and overall search engine visibility, that is what you’re paying me to do. If I spend the majority of my time reporting everything that was completed each week, a lot would be lost in translation, and it damages the overall value of the time that I spend on your project.
Many who believe they have been screwed over by SEO consultants in the past are reading that statement and thinking to themselves “SEO’s are lazy, they want to put everything on auto-pilot and do nothing” which is fair, many in the SEO industry have helped to contribute to this negative stereotype.
However, the same people who think that are likely the same folks who, as potential clients, signed up with an agency to manage their SEO, all while knowing that same agency is working with 30 other clients and have limited in-house SEO professionals working on projects every day, at a lower monthly price than they were paying two years ago AND likely at a lower monthly price than their competitors are paying.
It goes back to what I mentioned in problem number 2. More agencies are offering SEO, the average monthly price point for experienced SEO campaign management has dropped significantly because SEO has transformed from a long-term investment into “something everyone’s offering” with the hope for immediate results that can allow agencies to show clients that “its working”. The time being spent is what suffers as a result, because more SEO consultants have to take on projects at a discounted rate and still try to get by and stay competitive in the market.
So if you think that your current SEO provider is in a position where they have experienced SEO professionals spending time on your project, and they’re obtaining results, that is what’s important. Not a monthly breakdown of what has been done on an hourly basis, because that’s likely being performed by hourly SEO’s overseas or entry-level domestic SEO professionals who are taking on as many hourly projects as they can without completely losing their minds, because that’s what the outsourcing agencies and providers need to prove to clients that work is being completed.
4. Justifying an ROI in 2020 for both clients AND providers
Showing clients that SEO is paying off from a return on investment standpoint in 2020 will continue to be difficult, due to the various aspects involved with tracking individual leads and conversions. This all comes back to, in my opinion, what is the most important aspect as it relates to selling SEO: communicating and managing client expectations.
The goal of SEO, as a service, is to optimize your website and improve overall search engine authority. You can improve keyword rankings, you can show improvements to organic search traffic. You can show improvements in phone calls and website clicks in monthly Google My Business insight reports. You can show monthly improvements to search engine impressions and clicks through Google Search Console reports. But can you attribute each individual lead, sale, or client to organic SEO efforts? It’s becoming easier to do, but still far from flawless in terms of tracking individual conversions.
The old school days of false promises: “we’ll get your website to rank #1 for these 5 keywords, and it will make you so much more money!” are long gone, and if you’re an SEO provider focusing on a small number of individual keyword rankings as the key to client success, then we are not on the same page in terms of what’s important.
SEO over the past few years, and heading into 2020, isn’t about improving keyword rankings for a select number of keywords. The old days of building a bunch of spam links to an internal page with the keyword you want to improve rankings for as the anchor text, monitoring ranking gains and trying to tell the client to get ready to expand once they’ve reached #1 on Google are over.
The goal of SEO is to make a client’s website more user-friendly, more optimized for conversions, more optimized for search engine visibility. Improving overall search engine authority means that, as experienced SEO professionals, it’s our job to focus on full-scale SEO and improving overall usability and full-scale SEO aspects of your website. If we do our job correctly, and we are doing things the right way, your site won’t just start ranking well for 5 keywords in 6 months. Instead, your overall search engine visibility improves.
Your site is now being found for more relevant search terms.
Your overall organic traffic continues to naturally improve over time.
You’ve noticed more phone calls coming in from the web, and that’s a great sign, but if you’re also managing a paid Adwords campaign and a social media campaign, attributing these increases in online lead generation to SEO can be increasingly difficult.
It has always been my personal opinion that promising more business, and taking accountability for an increase in lead generation, can be irresponsible as SEO’s. You could work with a law firm who ranks #1 for every search term imaginable, if they have terrible online reviews, or their intake process is far from optimal, or they refuse to invest in a live chat provider or other effective conversion methods that their competitors are using, if they fail to keep their clients updated on their case progress, if their website looks like it was designed in 1988, whatever the case may be…using leads and sales as a measuring stick for ROI as it relates to SEO can be tricky, and I don’t see it becoming any easier to do in 2020.
To be clear, I’m not saying that SEO doesn’t need to be justified from an SEO perspective. Just the opposite, and I personally found this out the hard way early on. You can charge a client $5k/month for an SEO campaign, with the hope that they land a few big cases as a result, turn around and want to keep investing the next year. But what happens to the OVERALL public perception of SEO, and how much harder does it make to sell SEO as a service and manage those expectations, when you’re promising your client more business, more leads and cases or sales, you obtain top search engine rankings but the client isn’t seeing an ROI? The monthly SEO price needs to be taken into account when selling SEO, for both the clients and providers.
As an SEO consultant, if you’re spending the majority of your time on a $500/month client, that wouldn’t make much sense since your return on that time investment, after taxes and expenses and time that could be spent on other projects, is very limited.
At the same time, if you’re charging $8,000/month for SEO, are you actually able to justify and prove an ROI to your client?
Monthly SEO retainers do continue to decrease as a result of a number of providers undercharging in order to land clients, that’s a fact. Most SEO consultants have had to, as a result, charge less than they used to in order to land clients and remain competitive. Whatever the case may be, in order for SEO to work as a long-term strategy, it has to be sold and managed at a price point that makes sense, from an ROI perspective, for both the provider and the client, which isn’t always as easy as it sounds.
5. The elephant in the room: Google
SEO as a profession can be extremely difficult and stressful, if you haven’t noticed by now. For in-house SEO professionals, managing multiple clients and being pulled in different directions, trying to explain SEO to clients and co-workers, developing a strategy and communicating to clients what will be worked on every quarter can be a lot of stress, especially when managing multiple projects which are all different.
For individual SEO consultants, staying competitive in a market which has become over-saturated and competitive, during a time when potential clients are operating under the assumption that all SEO professionals are “snake oil salesmen” or spammers emailing them every night asking for a blog post link can be increasingly difficult as well.
I mentioned a few paragraphs ago that setting and managing client expectations can be the most important aspect of an SEO campaign, and one thing clients need to know up front is that Google can be bi-polar, unpredictable, mean, and unruly.
SEO in 2020 is tougher to sell and manage, but is it reasonable for SEO professionals and consultants to be completely responsible every time keyword rankings drop, or every time organic search engine traffic drops? Absolutely not, and this won’t get any easier in 2020 and moving forward. As more and more SEO providers continue to battle for business, more promises will be made, in-house SEO’s and individual consultants will be under more pressure from clients, and as a result they will likely be forced to come up with an explanation every time something negative happens, instead of being able to simply communicate to the client that we are working with an extremely complicated algorithm that could change at any moment.
This is why it’s important to build up the value of the experienced people working on the client project. If Google launches a new update, the experienced SEO professional monitoring rankings, impressions, and traffic to make sure a client site isn’t potentially penalized is worth more than the hourly consultant getting paid to prove to clients that work is being done.
The experienced SEO professional who knows what to look for when something negative happens, has the proper tools in place to monitor search engine visibility over time to identify any potential issues, including keyword ranking reports, tools like SEMRush or AHREFS to examine lost backlinks, Google Search Console to monitor drops in search engine impressions. Even the fact that you have an experienced SEO professional who stays up-to-date on Google updates, modern SEO tactics and techniques, and has his or her finger on the pulse as it relates to your website’s full-scale SEO efforts is worth a lot more than you think.
When in-house SEO’s are able to communicate to client project managers and show them that Google is an unpredictable girl or boyfriend ready to throw all your stuff out in the street and light it on fire at any given moment, versus being responsible for every peak and valley and being forced to explain to clients every time something drops off, that’s when things will improve,
When individual SEO consultants have such a strong working relationship with their clients every month that they’re not forced to explain to clients every time something negative happens that they don’t actually have a direct phone line to Google to find out what happened, but are qualified and knowledgeable enough to attempt to identify the cause of the problem, that’s when things will improve.
But the problem right now for SEO, and the problem moving forward into 2020, is that those expectations aren’t being set. SEO isn’t being sold as a long-term strategy. SEO campaigns aren’t being managed by those familiar and experienced in how SEO works. And as a result, SEO is looked at by everyone with a negative stereotype, all because it’s been transformed into Something Everyone’s Offering.